Oxford discredits Shakespeare 400 years after he could possibly defend himself

The Oxford University Press is getting ready to release a new edition of the complete works of Shakespeare. Why on Earth is this bit of news worthy of attention? Because for the first time ever, three of the Bard’s plays will be listed with a co-author… Christopher Marlowe. This coverage of the curious announcement comes from NPR.

Oxford University Press has announced that its new edition of the complete works of William Shakespeare will credit Christopher Marlowe as a co-author on the three Henry VI plays.

Despite years of controversy about the authorship of some of Shakespeare’s work, this is the first time a major publishing house has formally named Marlowe as a co-author.

Christopher Marlowe is a 16th century British poet and playwright. The extent of his possible influence on (or even collaboration with) William Shakespeare is the subject of much academic scholarship, as NPR has reported, but for many years, mainstream academics had mostly derided efforts of independent scholars who challenged the authorship of plays attributed to Shakespeare.

We were hearing these rumors back when I was in school and they have persisted for far longer than that. There’s long been chatter that Shakespeare may have cribbed some of his work from Marlowe, one of his fellow authors of the day. If you believe this line of inquiry to be true, that might be because he directly stole the work or perhaps it was simply incorrectly attributed later on. Either way, it’s something of a scandal in the literary world.

But before we go slapping Marlowe’s name on three of these plays, shouldn’t we be demanding some proof which is at least beyond reasonable doubt? If you look at the “evidence” being offered, it’s less than compelling in a legal sense. The experts handling the case spent countless hours examining every word and phrase from the known body of Marlowe’s work, then doing the same for the rest of Shakespeare’s. They looked for instances where phrases and paragraphs looked a bit too much like one and less like the other and seem to think they’ve found sufficient examples to muddy Shakespeare’s name.

What would have been truly compelling was if they could have come up with some other sources from the same time period where someone actively cited instances of the men either working together or challenging the originality of a play. But what they’ve come up with is far from that. Sure, it’s possible that the story is true. But speaking as someone who has to write on a daily basis, I can tell you that I’ve adopted elements of style or phrasing from other authors I admire and see it creeping into my own work. It’s an evolutionary process and we all have our influences. Nobody’s writing style matures in a vacuum.

Might there be some other explanation as to why they would be robbing Shakespeare of his authorship roughly 400 years after he became too permanently horizontal to defend his work? Perhaps (and I’m just taking a shot in the dark here) it might have something to do with the fact that it’s not roughly 400 years at all. In fact it’s exactly 400 years. Shakespeare died in 1616 at the age of 52. This is the 400th anniversary of his death. I have to wonder if there aren’t some experts in the field looking to make a name for themselves in an otherwise dusty corner of academia by celebrating the anniversary with a big, splashy announcement of what they’ve “found” after all this time.

Personally, unless we come up with something a bit more concrete, I’ll continue to think of the works of William Shakespeare as precisely that.